Developing business acumen for proposals
Kathryn Bennett CPSM explains the importance of developing business acumen for...
Eileen shares how she identifies which US Federal opportunities to bid on and win, instead of costly tactical fruitless bids.
* Eileen Kent, known as "the ‘Federal Sales Sherpa' has trained over 10,000 Federal Sales Executives since 2003.
* Her personal sales and proposal writing experience started just after 9/11 when she walked the halls selling to federal agencies across 8 major markets.
* During the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) otherwise known as the stimulus package of 2009, Eileen helped a roofing company capture $65M in 18 months.
* Over 330 Companies have been through Eileen's Custom Three-Step Program since 2012
Greetings everyone. And a very warm welcome to another edition of the proposal works podcast, where we talk with proposal experts who share real stories of how they win. I'm your host, Pete Nichols. I'm coming to you from a lovely sunny day in Copenhagen, in Denmark. And I'm joined today by Eileen kids, Eileen, a very good day to you.
Where are you joining us from today?
Hello, Pete. I'm uh, just outside of the Chicago land area in Illinois.
And how's the weather in Chicago land today.
Just as bright and sunny and beautiful. The roses are out, the birds are chirping. It's a beautiful, beautiful summer day.
Lovely. Chicago land I'm sort of picturing a theme park based on Chicago, which could be credible. For our listeners then welcome Eileen. Folks if you haven't heard of Eileen Kent before Eileen is known as the federal sales sherpa. Eileen has trained over 10,000 federal sales executives in the US since 2003, her personal sales and proposal writing experience started just after 9/11. When she walked to the halls, selling to federal agencies across eight major markets.
And then during the American recovery and reinvestment act, otherwise known as the stimulus package of 2009, Eileen helped a roofing company capture $65 million in 18 months, and then over 330 companies have since been through Eileen's customer three-step program since 2012. So tons of experience, let's see if we can unpack that together, Eileen, and share some real stories.
Our title for today is 'Write fewer proposals, win more. So the first question Eileen is who is your ideal client and what do they truly want?
My ideal client is working with a company that's going after opportunities with the US federal government. So I have a three-step program where I teach them federal sales in the first step. And I do a deep dive, competitive analysis, looking at all the contracting data to see who buys what they sell from whom and how and what contract vehicles, and what competitors and potential teaming partners we're hoping for. And then I built federal sales action plans around that. It could be any company looking after federal opportunities that are either kind of stuck, you know, they did well for a while and they got stuck or they're just stepping off and they want to know which way to go, what's the best place to start.
Great. So getting stuck or other things that go wrong, tell me what are the problems that they normally face? What does that normally look like?
Probably one of the biggest mistakes a company has is they register with the federal email@example.com, or they get themselves a GSA schedule and they sit and wait for someone to pick up the phone and give them a call. And they don't realize that in sam.gov, there are 650,000 vendors listed there. And at GSA there are over 18,000 vendors there. We have to go out and get the opportunities, build relationships. Find out what the pain is with the customers who need what we sell based on pain. So we have to uncover that way before any bid hits the streets.
So the biggest mistake is just sitting and waiting and even worse writing proposals that just get posted at sam.gov or posted at GSA EHI or posted at a public bid site and just responding, responding, responding, losing bid after bid, after bid, those are the two biggest mistakes. So my role is to get them out of their seat and in front of their client's building relationships because that's how federal opportunities are built.
They could spend eons out in the weeds like that. Like, I've, I've put my best suit on, I've got my business cards in my pocket, but you know, nobody's coming and asking me for a date, nobody wants to come and have a, have a drink with me and they just keep showing up. So you like take them out of the weeds and type them in there. So let's get into some real stories then, cause you have so much experience in this Eileen, what are some real-life examples of how you've helped?
Well, I'll just start with my own very first calling on the federal government opportunity. It was literally after 9/11, and I was told you're going on the Lewis and Clark expedition selling to the fed. And I was like, okay, no training, GSA schedule, brand new with a brochure in hand and a plane ticket to DC and I have never been to DC before. So I get to DC and of course, I've got my flip phone because it's like 2002, just, just coming out of 9/11. And I start walking the streets of DC and just going, where do I begin?
How do I do this? I don't even know what agency to call. I don't have a list. I don't know where to begin. So I grab a phone book and back then, Pete, it had a blue section where you opened it up. So I started at the top, took my flip phone, White House. And when I was selling at the time was temporary office furniture that you can set up in two days.
So it was perfect for emergency situations. So I called the White House first, White House do you need any furniture? And actually, they got me to a lady named Jackie who was pretty nice and said, send me a year formation. So I said, I would, and then I looked at my little chart and I went, okay, the next phone call Congress.
I called the house and the gentleman who answered the phone, his name was Bob and he said, what kind of idiot would rent furniture? Totally pushback I mean, I was shocked the way he treated me and, and I just stop for a second and I started to laugh and I said, well, what idiots in town rent? You obviously know what I do.
And he said you know what? Call them Senate David, here's his number. And he gave me the phone number, Pete. David answered the phone and I said, Hey, David, Bob, over at the house said you idiots rent furniture, and you said, we shared do come on over.
I hung up the phone. I ran out into the street and I'm like, I don't know where David's office is. So I run-up to a cop and say, "I'm looking for the Senate" and he points at the Capitol like, uh Hmm. So I run over to the Capitol and the Capitol says, you can't come in here, it's post 9/11. And I said, well, I'm looking for a guy named Dave and facilities at the center.
He goes, oh, that's the Dirksen building right over there. So I walk over to the Dirksen building, this was all within 15 minutes, mind you, Pete, this all happening very fast. I run over to the Dirksen building. I get right in, by the way, you just need your ID and it just through a metal detector even now.
And they point me to David's office. David says, come on in and who's standing there. David and Bob is standing next to him laughing. So they gave me the run around the two of them, had a little fun. And by the way, within two weeks, I was renting 50 leather chairs to the Senate when they needed it. So that was my very first day selling to the federal government, not knowing where to begin just sheer picking up the phone, being brave, getting rejected, laughing at rejection, asking where would you go? If you or me? It was all-natural, but that's what we need to do. We need to chase the story. I look at sales as a story because my background is journalism. And if our salespeople are our reporters as a proposal manager, we can wrap a proposal around a solid story from the field.
Fantastic. So that gave you your, your start selling to people who said that others were idiots who buy what you have. And, uh, and they did. So through your journey. Cause you've been since 2012, you've now had a 990 of the classes with the, uh, hundreds of companies that have been through your program and the title that we came up with today around writing fewer proposals. So can you think of a situation then where somebody is writing too many proposals like they're trying too hard and they're just not getting anything? What would be an example of where you see that? And does that come up very often?
Well, actually it comes up everywhere. Most people start trying to get federal business by writing a proposal, after loser proposal, after loser proposal, thinking that if, if my chances are 5%, if I throw 20 at the wall and maybe one will stick, but they don't realize that the chances are just like at Vegas, 5% means every time you put a quarter in, you're probably going to lose a quarter. So you need to know that, that you need to create a bid, no-bid process. And if you have a strong bid, no-bid process, then you can be really, really confident about when it makes sense to be all in, in our proposal and when to walk away, because for example, Pete, four people working on a proposal for 30 days, if you take a hundred bucks an hour and add all that up, that's $64,000, I'm going to throw 64 grand effort at a 5% shot.
So what I say is, get a strong bid, no bid processing so then you write less and you focus on only the winners. A classic one that just happened to one of my clients recently is where we're going after an opportunity that showed up Pete in a procurement forecast. And we started to talk to the customers before the bid came out.
And we started to introduce ourselves, tying them that we would like an opportunity. We also did a background check on who did the work before. So we knew who the incumbent was. We knew who the end-user was. We started to talk to them. And when they said that it was going to be posted on May 8th, we started watching for it May 8th, May 10th, June 1st, June dent, like where is it?
Finally? They told us they posted it. And when we saw the proposal. The name of the document had the incumbent's name on it.
No, go written for them. No, go literally had their date and we didn't protest or create a big, you know, trouble because we really want to work with this client someday, but there's a lot of towels and proposals. The classic one is going straight to the past performance when they're asking for the past performance criteria, was it a past performance that you told them about during one of your capabilities briefings and they took the nuances of it and kind of put it in the criteria. But if you don't have the past performance they're describing somebody does, that's a real big tale area.
So I always point my clients to that. Who was the incumbent? What's the past performance look like? Do we know the end-user? Do we know the contracting officer and her processes? So there's a lot of towels, if you have the story if you don't know the story and you just stand there going, well, I don't know.
I don't know. It's a no-go, it's a no-go! You're not going to put 60 grand on an I don't know proposal.
No, that's, that's a bad bet. So the bid no-bid process, it sounds like that is key to writing fewer proposals and then winning more in your experience of taking these companies through this does one come to mind of where it was particularly difficult to put a bid, no-bid process in place just through the nature of the organization. Is there anything you can share with us about one that was tough to do?
Absolutely one particular situation I was working with a roof, the roofing company, and we had one proposal writer and 48 locations of salespeople sending opportunities their way. So we really had to create a tight bid, no-bid process. So what we would do is we had a 20 question questionnaire and the minute someone would bring something forward, we would just ship it off to them, say, Hey, you know, can you fill this out? The minute they would say, oh, I don't have time to fill that out. You go, you want us to work on this for a month for you?
So that's a real easy one to go ah, no-way. But if they actually fill it out and it's full of just chock full of information about the client and that they're interested, et cetera. And there's more like we did work there before, or, um, our partner brought us in and we've already walked the space and we know what it is. When you start hearing a story, it's a lot easier. So I had one situation, Pete that happened to me in the field. I'm sitting across from a project manager who said, I really want to work with you guys. She said it. We want to work with you, and I said, well, what do we need to do? She said I have three rooftops. I have one in Fargo, which is way up in Minnesota. I have one in another city that was way up in Minnesota and one in downtown Minneapolis.
That was a real high-profile project. And she said I need you to come to all three. And what does that really mean? Well, what I heard was. I need you to come to Fargo because I don't have three bidders up there. So please come to Fargo and give us a legitimate bid. Give us this other remote location, a legitimate bid, and then give us the one for downtown. And she actually lined them up one at a time. The one far away, the second one, far away, she marked them up. She red-lined them. She gave us debriefings. When the big one came out, which was double the other two put together. We have one that one, she basically, Pete, lined us up for this big win because they wanted us for the big one, but we never won anything with her.
So she said, fill my file with a loser. I'll teach you how to respond to me. And it was all within the rules. We followed the rules, we filled it out properly and my company was madder than blazes at me that we didn't win all three but I knew from the beginning, we have to invest in these to get the big one.
So sometimes your, your spidey senses will tell you sometimes it's worth it to write a loser if it's going to lead to something that's a winner. So bid no bid is critically important at field intel.
That's a really great example and this is where maybe it runs counter to our title a little bit because, at face value, You're writing a bunch of proposals there that yeah, we lost those and we're actually okay with losing them. But you were playing the long game there. What was it about that situation where you knew you were playing the long game?
Because she, we were sitting across from each other and she looked me straight in the eye and said, I need you to come to all three. And I just went, got it. I got to earn this one, but the other ones that just come flying at you from the field that they found on sam.gov, they found on the public website, but they have no Intel. No one was even sitting across the desk from anybody at least tell me you were sitting across the desk from the customer. You had a zoom meeting with the customer or a conversation, but just because you found it on a public bid site, doesn't mean we have to respond to it. The biggest tell for me is when an owner or a salesperson says this is $5 million.
Yes. $5 million. But what do we know about it? It's $5 million, but what do we know about it? And you're going back and forth. It's just like, I have a headline here, but I have no who, what, where, when, why, how and no inside scoop or any field Intel. So I'd rather work on the $500,000 opportunity that the sales person's been working on for the last six months.
I can tell the difference like that, that we've got a scoop versus we don't. So I always look at, again, my salespeople as if the reporters, do they have a story if they don't know to go.
Right. And that story in the case of the long game that you were playing, you, you had the spotter senses of sitting across the table, say, I, I can see that this has a much longer runway on it and you can make a judgment call. So thinking about the companies that have been through your course and putting a bid, no bid in which I presume is a, it's gotta be one of the main takeaways is that if they come and do you, your series of three, how does the program work and what are the main things such as bid no bid that you would want to put in place?
Probably the most important thing, um, that happens is when I do a competitive analysis, looking at who buys, what they sell from whom, what contract vehicle set-asides and vendors they're using, is you can see the story for the last five years of what's been happening. I had a client say to me when I asked in the old days, you didn't have that Intel, you'd go, who are you working with? And they'd answer the usual suspects. And you're like, oh, I got to do my homework. Yeah. So now we can do the homework literally from our desktops to get that information and the first thing I do when someone says, I'm looking at this opportunity, I say, who's the incumbent, what's the story? And I can look at the data because I can see everything of what's been going on and I can present that to my client saying, here's the history of this. So do we want to team up with one of those primes, because let's say, for example, It's an 8A set aside opportunity, which would be in minority-owned, socially, economically disadvantaged company? And the current vendor, their 8A is coming to an end or they graduated. Some 8A contracts have to remain 8A contracts.
So we can, if we're there early enough, we can talk to the incumbent as an 8A contractor and say, Hey, you want a team with us? We'll prime, you sub the client gets the same people they want. It's still an eight, eight contract. All these conversations can happen six months to a year before that bid comes up again because we can see when contracts come to an end.
So the idea here is to focus on the agencies that buy what we sell, a real tight focus. Build teaming partnerships with the primes and make a decision. Do we want to beat them or join them? And then we kind of, as we get the field Intel, we tweak and tweak and tweak until we get in there. So with the roofing company, for example, we had a GSA schedule out of 65 million, four of it was on GSA and we were selling to public building services, which is a GSA agency.
The rest, the other 60 million was through teaming partners so that the customer could get it quickly quietly under the radar, within the rules, meeting their small business goals. So the program that I offer helps companies focus on the agencies that buy what they sell and make educated decisions and position themselves way before a bit hits the streets, and then only write the one that they've been talking to the client about, they know exactly what the client told them they wanted and they're offering it.
That sounds like a much more strategic way to do business. I know no CEO would, would want to admit that they are tactical and not strategic. And yet what you described sounds like simply being that don't just react to this $5 million bid that's out because it's 5 million. So responding to fewer proposals and then winning more, can you think of an example, a customer you want to share with us anything that's commercially sensitive of course, where you've taken somebody to X percent, fewer proposals, but that has resulted in so many percent more wins? What's a realistic tip of that Seesaw take one in down and the other end goes.
I hate to use the famous word, but in federal contracting, it really depends. It depends on the client, what they're selling, what they do, who they are, who they are teaming with. But the most important thing is a lot of companies are spending all their time writing proposals and none of their time selling. And I think the way I try to do it is I'd rather you spend 10% of your time writing a proposal and 90% of your time selling. So you're only writing those winners. I want salespeople, I want the company to spend their dollars on people, talking to people, developing relationships. And then if they go through the trouble of throwing that 64 K at a proposal, We better have a really, really, really tight, high win opportunity here.
One of the, how would I say this? The temperature gauges that I have Pete is called the Win theme. If we have a Win theme, our chances of bidding on it are much higher and what does that mean is like the ingredients to a cake. We see the bid and it says we want cake. Everybody thinks they can bake a cake, so everybody bids on it. But our team brought the chef out, head on taste tests, knows the layers, as we know exactly what the occasion is, what kind of cake, how many layers. It's just an example of what I mean by you have to have those early conversations so that your Win theme is you have exactly the design cake, knowing the occasion, the number of pieces, the allergies that people have, the layers that they want. When you cut the cake open, what does it look like? Everybody else just sees the outside. So the scale tips to me when there's a Win theme. If I know that we, for example, they'll say my salesperson took a project manager out the project manager on our side with the college together, with the project manager on their side and they're speaking involvement, poetry. They're really getting into the details of the project. Right? You bring it back to the office, your salesperson and your project manager saying we can do this. And then the client told us they wanted Joe on the project. Joe is our Win theme cause we employ Joe. So there are easy ways to identify why would they choose us over anybody else? Because of the one thing or the small combination of things we offer. So I want companies to spend more time sticking their foot in people's doors rather than writing a proposal to get their foot in the door. So that's the goal.
What comes to mind as you're describing that, Elaine, uh, let's stick with the cake analogy that if you are needing to bake a thousand cakes a month, that you're probably going to go and buy a whole bunch of packet mix. And like you add an egg and some water, and you've got yourself a cake, but none of those cakes are what the customers want to buy.
So you've got to. bake fewer cakes to have the magic ingredient in each one so that each cake is custom cooked in it. You know, people will pay a lot more for the value they get from a custom cake than just, a packet mix off the shelf.
Exactly! I always like to say, when someone also brings me a proposal, I just look at them cause I get the cake analogy, and I go, well, what's the occasion, you know, is it a birthday? Is it, is it a wedding? Is it? Yeah. So when someone says, this is perfect for us and I'm like, do you know the occasion? Do you know why they want this? In fact, the gentleman from Kaiki recently was in a meeting with me and he said, you have to ask why, if we don't know the why don't bid, that's like the most important, why are they asking for this? Why are we bidding on this? Is it a fit if we don't know why other than 5 million, it's a no-go. So why is this a good question to ask?
Yeah, we're just going to show up with the wrong cake to the wrong party. It's like a happy anniversary and their not even married. The challenge of then having a business that wants to bake a cake and put it up on every cake stall what can you recall as a, as a really challenging situation where convincing that customer to not run up at everything required a fundamental change, and yet you were able to make that change? Is there anything you can share around getting a really difficult behavior change?
I think the way that it happens sometimes, especially if you have Pete, a project manager on your team talking to the ownership, saying their ego gets in the way I call it an ego attack, we can do this. This is what we do. This is perfect for us. And as a project manager, I'm so as a proposal manager and a sales manager, I'm saying, but we know nothing about that, but I'm the baker. I'm good at this. Give me this. And so project managers sometimes jump in and go to the owners saying we need to do this. And unfortunately, as a proposal managers, we are forced to write a proposal.
And what I like to do is enumerate the reasons why I think we're going to lose. Just to be the, get out my crystal ball, why are we going to lose a, B, C, D E usually it's they don't know who we are because of my bid, no bid. They don't know who we are or whatever it might be. I look at the proposal, I can see some of the towels and I write all the reasons. And then I add up all the dollars and the time that we spent on that proposal, all the travel time, going to the breakout meeting, going on-site, doing the walkthrough. Doing the late nights, the evenings, the weekends, the miss family parties, the children's, you know, graduations, everything that we've done. And then when we lose, cause you know, we are, when we lose, I lay that whole thing out and they see, and the teams demoralized by the way, and present it to the owner. This is how much it costs your company and the project managers aren't going to come to my beck and call when I ring the dinner bell for a real one. They won't believe me anymore. So it's everybody's investment. So the owner needs to be presented, how much it's costing their company to write a loser in real dollars, real-time, and then compare it with a public bid versus a quick RFI or a quick RFQ, so they can see the difference. And then just say, We need to not spend as much time on this, because usually when we lose it's based on a silly mistake or just something random that the government chose, that you didn't lose, that you didn't win. If we write less of these, we're going to get better and better and better. If we stay focused on these, we're going to get better and better and better. If we spend time and money on salespeople, we're going to get the inside scoop because look at the reasons why they won the other guy inside scoop.
So you gotta, you gotta present, why this last and then owners after maybe one or two, they go, it's like they heal. Okay. That's what they hired us to do and as this proposal manager, instead of feeling like we're getting dumped on all the time, we got to start getting brave and strong. If this were your business, would you spend the time and effort to write this proposal?
You need to get tough with the owners or it's going to kill you. So they hired you to be strong and tell them the truth presented the dollar amount that it's costing your company to write losers and find a way to spend your money properly and developing relationships and having sane proposals prepared properly and beautifully instead. So it's up to you proposal managers to do that. That's critically important.
So that, uh, business acumen, which I was talking recently with Catherine Bennett over at, uh, Lupio about having the acumen to do the business speak and frame up the cost of bidding and showing maybe do you really want to throw this money away on a bad bet? Right. So to wrap up today, then. Is there a story Arlene, that you think embodies the topic of today, writing the fewer proposals and them winning more, is there one that you wanted to share that we haven't gotten to as yet on that?
Well, I would just say that the one thing that I'm looking for you to start thinking about doing anybody that's going after opportunities out there is to find what I call under the radar opportunities, where the client sits across from you they tell you what they're paying. They tell you what they think the solution should be, which helps you decide whether they've been talking to your competitor or not. Then you talk to them about what you think it should be. Once they're kind of bought in on that part, you're going to start to formulate this Win theme, all proposals are wrapped around this Win theme, you have the Win theme, you're going to win.
It's right there and it's something the client told you they want it. If you don't even know who the client is, it's a no-go. So if you can nail that, the wind theme you've got it.
Fantastic. Last question then about you personally, then Eileen, what is it about what you do that you find most useful?
I guess the the concept of me being called the federal sales Sherpa, I was kind of nicknamed that back in 2006 when I was out traveling and teaching people how to sell the feds, I would go to the GSA shows and people would see me everywhere, even GSA would have me as a keynote speaker. So people started to go there's my Sherpa. And I was just like, sure. But what's that I mean, and then look it up, guide up the Himalayas. Yep. I, I teach you how to climb. I pack your bags. I give you a map, but you, nobody else. You have to climb that mountain. So this is on owners and the team to go get it.
You can't blame anybody else. You have to go make it happen. And once you embrace that, then you'll realize that you'll have your trail. You'll have your mountain. It's going to take a year or two to get a big one. But it's going to take small wins as you go. But my passion is getting people on the right track as quickly as possible. Instead of stumbling around in this marketplace for a year with zero sales waiting for the phone to ring, let's go get it. So that's where I met. I'm passionate about it.
Yeah, no, I can, I can see that. And, uh, you'll be saving people from just being out in the wasteland. And nobody's swiping left or swiping right on them. Like they're not, not being swapped, uh, either way as a potential choice. They're just waiting for the phone to ring. Right. Final question. Then a valuable tip or resource. What, what would you leave folks with today of, uh, um, something that the listener could take away and use today?
Absolutely. In fact, if you connect with me on LinkedIn, I'm more than happy to email it to you. I have my bid, no bid criteria, and your ability to enumerate your budget. So if you want to just reach out to me, I'll send you that document. You'll have it. And you can add your own questions to the questionnaire, but let's get you really nailing down the bid, no-bid decision. So you'll write fewer proposals and win more.
Fantastic.. Very generous of you to offer that Eileen we'll put your link to your LinkedIn profile in the show notes so that people can connect with you and start if they don't have a bid, no-bid process, or maybe they have one, but it's like, it sits on the shelf and they still just bake cakes for everybody that this is a good starting step.
So I'd just like to say first Eileen, it's been an absolute pleasure talking with you today. Thank you for sharing your stories. What's the best way for people to connect with you? Is it LinkedIn?
Yes, LinkedIn is one of my favorite places to be. I post a little tip every day or something motivational for proposal writers and federal salespeople and contractors. I also share a lot of news that comes out. So if I see a new news item, I'll share it. So please follow me on LinkedIn and don't just follow me, reach out to connect and tell me you saw me here with Pete. I want to know where you came from and you can visit my website, federal sales sherpa.com, but really LinkedIn is where I'm living these days.
So we can become very close friends and find out how we can get you to build that federal market.
Fantastic. Eileen, thank you so much for your time.
You're welcome. Thank you for having me, Pete.
See you soon. Cheers.
Pete Nicholls is the Founder of HubDo, a global SaaS integrator and service provider. Pete works with consultants who want to send proposals and close deals easier and faster but are unsure how best to integrate and automate that with their CRM. As HubSpot Certified Trainer, Pete supports hundreds of agencies and their clients to automate proposals using HubSpot CRM, PandaDoc and Zapier.